Tunisia goes to a second round

Tunisians voted on Sunday in the first round of their presidential election, to replace former president Beji Caid Essebsi, who died in office in July. (His term was due to expire at the end of the year anyway.) With no candidate close to a majority, the top two candidates will contest a second round – on 29 September according to Wikipedia, although other reports say the date is uncertain.

This is the sort of election where the two-round system doesn’t work very well. There were 26 candidates; eleven of them (as of this morning, with 77% counted) had more than 3% of the vote, none more than 19%. So the assumption that the top two would have remained at the top if the others had been eliminated one by one, instead of all at once, is rather shaky.

Still, that’s the system, and a single preferential ballot would have problems of its own. The two candidates for the runoff are law professor Kaïs Saïed, who is on 18.8%, and media tycoon Nabil Karoui with 15.5%. In third place is Abdelfattah Mourou of the Islamist Ennahda party, with 12.9%.

Saïed and Karoui are both outsiders, of a sort. Saïed ran as an independent – the BBC, Al-Jazeera and Reuters all omitted him from their lists of front-runners, although he had led in several opinion polls – while Karoui spent the election in jail, having been arrested three weeks earlier on charges of money laundering and tax fraud. He claimed, of course, political persecution, and electorally it seems to have done him no harm.

More establishment candidates finished back in the field. Abdelkrim Zbidi, a former defence minister backed by Essebsi’s party, is running fourth with 10.3%; incumbent prime minister Youssef Chahed is fifth on 7.4%; and former president Moncef Marzouki could manage only eleventh place, on 3.1%.

Politically, both finalists are broadly on the right. Saïed is a constitutional law expert and is seen as a conservative, while Karoui, who was previously an ally of Essebsi but had a falling out, leans more to the populist side – his media interests have produced the inevitable comparison with Silvio Berlusconi.

Turnout was only 45%, down 19 points on 2014. As the initial enthusiasm of the Arab Spring has faded it was natural to expect some decline, but it definitely suggests a population unhappy with the choices on offer, and perhaps sceptical of the chances of any of them making much impact on the country’s problems.

One of the limitations on their ability to effect change, for better or worse, is the fact that Tunisia’s system is semi-presidential, so the new president will need to work with parliament to get things done. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for 6 October – you can read my report on the last one here.

Polling so far has given conflicting views on the likely outcome of the second round. Intuitively, Karoui would seem the more polarising candidate and therefore less likely to make up the deficit, but no doubt his prospects will become clearer over the next fortnight.

4 thoughts on “Tunisia goes to a second round

  1. > “and a single preferential ballot would have problems of its own”
    I have sometimes wondered about a combination of preferential and two-round, at least for electing a president – use a preferential bottom-up-elimination on the first round until only one remains. You could add an escape clause that if the last one standing is supported, in the final count, by at least (say) 60% of all eligible voters, they’re declared elected outright; otherwise, the last two standing go to a straight fight, say, 21 days later.
    This way you would have a two-way binary contest where it is known in advance that those are the two contenders on offer (as opposed to someone emerging from third or even fourth place), without wasting anyone’s votes, and without effectively using first-past-the-post to decide who the final two will be.
    (The French presidential version of runoff voting, with only two allowed, these being the two highest unless one of them voluntarily stands down, is worse than the parliamentary version, where candidates over a certain statutory threshold – sometimes 15% of the votes cast, sometimes 12.5% of all enrolled voters – are also allowed to continue to le tour decisif. With the latter, the final choice is less constrained by accidents of vote-splitting on the first ballot. Jospin in 2002 could still have insisted on remaining in the race, instead of being forced out for Chirac vs Le Pen, giving left wing voters a better choice. True, with three or more on the final count there is a risk of a winner under 50% – but at least this time the vote-splitting arises when voters have their eyes open, as opposed to the former version of runoff when the final ballot officially requires 50%-plus but the first round may have produced a “Hobson’s choice” shortlist via first-past-the-post vote-splitting).
    One advantage of the preferential-runoff model suggested above allowing an outright win for a candidate with a large majority on the first round is that in wartime, say, the parties could agree to save time and money by making the first ballot decisive on its own (like the Australian version now). The Democrats would tell their voters “vote [1] FDR, [2] Wilkie” and the GOP would tell its voters “vote [1] Wilkie, [2] FDR”; preferences would flow (at least among the major party candidates); and whoever had more votes on the second-last count would almost certainly meet the “60% of all voters” criterion for election outright.

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    1. > “as opposed to someone emerging from third or even fourth place”
      As happens in at least one electoral division in most Australian federal and (mainland) State elections. It is arguably less disruptive for one MP out of 25 or 75 or 150: even if it leads to a hung parliament, they will usually only be a backbencher (or at most the Speaker, like Messrs Stott, Wellington and Slipper, or a Minister, like Mr Moore and Ms Maywald). Whereas if it happens in a presidential election, especially for an executive presidency, that’s a pretty huge political disruption within 24 hours. (The only Australian precedents I can think of in living memory are Queensland in 1983 and, er, Queensland in 1998). With a two-way runoff after 1 to 3 weeks, the nation has some more time to adjust to it being “Allende vs Frei”, “Giscard vs Mitterrand”, etc.
      A bipolar (two-bloc, not necessarily two-party) system is a good thing provided the electoral system doesn’t entrench a duopoly by threatening to bin votes for third-party challengers.

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